New Mother in Storm-Ravaged Gonaives Faces Huge Challenges

There was no baby shower for Guirlene Mondestin, no swaddling clothes, no cradle, no toys.

GONAIVES, Haiti — There was no baby shower for Guirlene Mondestin, no swaddling clothes, no cradle, no toys.

The hospital where her infant was to be born is still covered in mud nearly a month after Tropical Storm Jeanne devastated the island, so instead the baby was delivered at a Uruguayan military clinic set up to deal with post-disaster medical emergencies.

In storm-ravaged Gonaives, the clinic has become a baby factory, with up to five deliveries a day.

At the clinic, 27-year-old Mondestin lay on a bare mattress, her baby boy wrapped in towels at her side. She stared at the ceiling as flies danced around her face.

"Now I'm feeling sad," she sighed, wondering about the future of her second child in this tragedy-trapped nation of 8 million. "Where I live, there are a lot of dead people and animals. There's a bad smell and lots of bugs. It's a bad environment for a baby."

Like many newborns in the city, Mondestin's baby now lives with hunger and the stench of rotting corpses that litter the landscape. Experts say the outlook is grave for Gonaives' young.

"Even before this crisis, the situation of children in Haiti was at a critical level," Carol Bellamy, director general of the U.N. Children's Fund, said on a recent visit.

According to UNICEF, Haiti's child mortality rate is the worst in the Western Hemisphere — with eight in 100 not living beyond 5 years old — and the sixth worst in the world after Sierra Leone, Niger, Angola, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

The situation has been compounded by the flood woes.

To Mondestin, this is all part of a terrible curse on Haiti. "I just pray for mercy: for me and my children, Gonaives, and Haiti," she whispered.

Her biggest worry is whether her child can survive. Within two days of birth, he was covered in red spots, his lips were powdery, and he was throwing up his mother's milk.

Uruguayan nurses said he would live, but Dr. Laura Silveira said the spots were a staphylococcus infection affecting many infants in Gonaives, brought on by exposure to contaminated mud and water. Staph can lead to fatal meningitis.

If he recovers from the infection, the next worry is food. Mondestin said she doesn't have the money to buy any.

Like most people here, Mondestin lost her money, possessions, and her means of income when Tropical Storm Jeanne sent walls of water and debris-filled mudslides hurtling down on this northwestern city of 250,000.

Jeanne killed 1,900 people in Gonaives and left another 900 missing and presumed dead. Some 200,000 are homeless.

Mondestin's family had cobbled together a living from a small holding where they grew corn and eggplant and raised goats and pigs. Now the animals are dead, the crops flattened, and the field plastered with mud.

Four hours after giving birth, Mondestin gingerly walked home while her sister carried the baby.

They flagged down a truck that dropped them off at what once was the road to home. Now it's a mosquito-infested stretch of knee-deep mud and water, strewn with torn cinderblock, wrecked trucks, downed trees, all covered by the stench of rot.

After a struggle, she reached the four-room home where her husband, Sajous, and his brother had spent two days digging out mud with a borrowed shovel — the only preparation made for the new addition to the family.

Mondestin spent her baby's first days lying on sheets on the floor with her swaddled son in the sweltering heat of a pitch-black room she shared with her husband and mother.

Gonaives has suffered unrest since September 2003, when street gang leader Amiot Metayer was assassinated and his followers blamed then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Gang members and police were shooting it out regularly and victimizing bystanders for months.

In February, the violence escalated into a nationwide rebellion that forced Aristide to flee Feb. 29.

Then came the floods.

When the water rushed in, blocking her home's front door and rising to chest level, Mondestin was trapped with her 1-year-old son until her husband arrived, kicked open the back door, and helped the two climb onto the roof of the abutting house.

For two weeks the two families lived on the roof, five people squeezed under a canopy of sheets, until the baby was born.

Mondestin remembers when life was good in Gonaives. The best year, she says, was 1986, when a popular uprising ended the Duvalier family's 26-year dictatorship.

"There was electricity, food, people had enough money, and agriculture was good. Since then, it's like the earth is cursed," she said, indicating the disappointment shared by many poor Haitians, that Aristide, the country's first freely elected president, did not live up to his promises to lift the nation out of poverty.

In 1999, at age 22, Mondestin was two years away from graduating from high school but could not afford to finish.

She had dreams of her children becoming professionals — doctors or engineers — but doubts now that she will have the means to send them to primary school.

Source: Associated Press